Best Nonfiction of 2021 (and Honorable Mentions)

Hello, humans, humanoids, Hungarians, and other groups starting with “h.” It has been over a year since my last post about the best non-fiction books I read in 2020. And what a year it has been. From the insurrection of 1/6 to the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, from Michael K. Williams to Joan Didion, it has been the year of disenchanting thinking. But it could have been worse if not for the wisest and most unfailing of friends: books.  

For the 4th consecutive time, I am reviewing five of the best non-fiction books I have read in the past 365 days. (You can find my 2018, 2019, and 2020 reviews here, here, and here.) And, as you may imagine, I am looking forward to making it five straight on 5tern.com next year. 

For now, since I preach distillation – the process of slicing through the fat to get to the meat  – to my students, I thought it would be only proper to review my favorites in  five sentences apiece. 

(If I had more time, I would have done it in three sentences. Or, at least, in five shorter sentences and with less parentheses.) 

Anyway, in no particular order, here goes: 

  1. Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency, Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen

Is it better to be lucky than good?

Unexpected circumstances may have conspired in Joe Biden’s favor when he ran for – and won – the presidency, such as that inexcusable Iowa caucus mix-up which diverted attention from Biden’s disaster showing and the pandemic lockdown which minimized potential for his infamous gaffes. 

But luck alone did not win him the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Biden’s decency and empathy, along with Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar dropping out early to rally behind him in the primaries, also made him president. 

In short, it is best to be lucky and represent goodness  and play on a good team.

  1. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann 

Until reading this book, I had thought the wealthiest people per capita in the world during the roaring 20’s were in New York City. In truth, they were members of the Osage Indian nation who, after discovering oil underneath their reservation, took in the equivalent today of over 400 million dollars. But, they kept on being murdered, bit-by-bit, without justice. 

In researching and telling this true crime story, David Grann does a masterful job of weaving characters seemingly too sinister and events too shocking to be really true. Not just for historical preservation but to shine a light on the monstrosity of greed & racism meeting ambition & arrogance. 

(It is no small wonder that Martin Scorese is directing a movie based on this book, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jesse Plemons, which is scheduled to be released soon.)

  1. Atomic Habits, James Clear 

In James Clear’s words: 

“Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals.”

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”

To create a good habit, “Make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.”

  1. You Ought to Do a Story About Me: Addiction, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Endless Quest for Redemption, Ted Jackson 

At first glance, this is a book about an award-winning photojournalist taking photos under a bridge in New Orleans and stumbling upon a homeless drug addict, Jackie Wallace, who said, “You ought to do a story about me.” For he had starred at the University of Arizona and for the New Orleans Saints, and played in three Super Bowls, only to succumb to poverty, trauma, and drugs. 

But at closer examination, it is a love story about two people trying to write, and re-write, the last chapters of their lives through fellowship. Heartbreaking and gripping, “You Ought to Do a Story About Me” offers a glimpse into the tension between addiction and recovery, squandered potential and unabating hope. Not only through words but also with photographs that add richness, credence, and weight to their story. 

  1. The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education, Craig Mullaney

At heart of this book is a young man’s search for meaning and belonging in a nasty, brutish, and short world. In his journey, Craig Mullaney traveled from West Point, where he could only say three things as a plebe (“no, sir”, “yes, sir”, and “no excuses, sir”) to Ranger School where he carried a 80-pound backpack up & down mountains and through thickets & swamps for hundreds of miles, to Oxford where he was told that “conversation is an end in itself”, to Afghanistan where he was a platoon leader, and, finally, to civilian life where he married his college sweetheart. 

While overearnest and too dramatic at times, the memoir is still compelling. All things considered, he makes a persuasive case through philosophy and experience that the secret to life in an unforgiving world is a healthy body, mind, and spirit. Even though it is not entirely clear if he has achieved this triumvirate, still to this day.    

HONORABLE MENTIONS 

  1. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Eddie S. Glaude 

As James Baldwin exhorted at Howard in 1963, “We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.” 

  1. Lost City of Z, David Grann

Percy Fawcett’s swashbuckling journeys into the Amazon – and his demise – are a vivid illustration of how obsession is a drug that elevates and maddens the best of us.

  1. The Hot Hand, Ben Cohen 

To imagine patterns in randomness is to be human – and flawed. 

  1. Basketball (and Other Things), Shea Serrano

Disrespectful dunks and trash talk during pick-up basketball are funnier than you think.

  1.  Peril, Robert Woodward and Robert Costa

The last days of Trump’s presidency could have been (far) more perilous if not for unexpected heroes under his command who, nonetheless, fulfilled their oaths to defend the Constitution and averted a fundamental democratic crisis.  

***

What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think?  Do you have a book to recommend? If so, let me know.   

Until next time, wishing you a tranquil New Year and a brighter 2022.

9 thoughts on “Best Nonfiction of 2021 (and Honorable Mentions)

  1. Awesome! Thank you for sharing!

    Your synopsis of You Ought to Do a Story About Me reminds me of a similar book I read, The Soloist, which made a profound and powerful impression on me. It included three themes of which I knew little about — homelessness, mental health, and music. Written by a LA Times reporter.

    Happy new year and may 2022 be even greater and brighter for you and your family.

    Hugs, Roz

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Killers of the Flower Moon” read like a mystery novel (one of my favorite genres). Eye and mind opening too. From my own nonfiction list I developed a special attachment to “The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes our Greatest Gift” by Rabbi Steve Leder. Even bought copies for some close friends. An inspiring and comforting book about loss and life. “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age” by Sanjay Gupta gets an 4 out of 5 stars from me. Lastly anything by Adam M. Grant appeals to me. This year I read “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Do Not Know.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love Adam Grant too. Have seen nothing but rave reviews about “Think Again.” I’ve gotta read it sooner than later. Just Googled “The Beauty of What Remains” and am intrigued. It also reminded me of another book I hope to read soon – “The Sabbath World” – which came highly recommended by a friend.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful recommendations, Marilyn!

      Like

  3. My distilled thoughts: It’s good to read you again, baby bro!! Gonna blog more this year? I know you have many, many, many demands on your time and that this is a somewhat selfish request, but still……

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  4. Great recommendations! Adding them to my TBR list! Many of the non fiction novels that I read are biographies or memoirs. I am a BIG fan of movies.

    2021 –

    SUNSHINE GIRL by Julianna Marguiles, actress from THE GOOD WIFE and ER

    EARTHA & KITT by Kitt Shapiro, only child of the Catwoman from Batman (1960s) Eartha Kitt

    FOREVER YOUNG by Hayley Mills, actress from Disney movies like THE PARENT TRAP and POLLYANNA

    BRAT ;AN “80S STORY by Andrew McCarthy, actor from the “Brat Pack”

    JUST AS I AM by Cicely Tyson (the cat in BLUE BIRD movie from the 1970s)

    I also read non fiction by people who are Not actors.

    WHAT JUST HAPPENED : notes on a long year by Charles Finch about the first year of the pandemic

    GOING THERE by Katie Couric (TV journalist – not actress)

    Like

  5. MORE BOOKS

    WHAT WOULD FRIDA DO? A GUIDE TO LIVING BOLDLY by Arianna Davis with many quotes by Frida Kahlo

    THE BEAUTY IN BREAKING by Michele Harper, MD – a memoir by ER doctor

    Like

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